Treaty rights, bison and the country’s most controversial hunt

The bison’s massive front- and hindquarters rested on a blue tarp to protect them from dirt and other contaminants. Gut piles left by other hunters, frosted with March snow, dotted the hillsides around Falcon. As she field-dressed the animal, tourists headed to the park passed by less than half a mile away. “We’re using our space that we have always used,” Falcon said. “We’re just using it again now with an audience.”

Falcon’s harvest is a revitalization of Indigenous knowledge and culture. But the hunt is also a public lightning rod — part of an ongoing controversy over managing an iconic species that tribal nations, the federal government and the state of Montana all have deep and different interests in.

“We’re using our space that we have always used. We’re just using it again now with an audience.”

Treaty rights, bison and the country’s most controversial hunt
A bison migrating along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park in late March.

AT LEAST 27 TRIBES have historic ties to the Yellowstone region. In the late 19th century, the United States government forced them out as part of a nationwide effort to exterminate and assimilate Indigenous people. Treaties between tribes and the federal government in the mid-1800s established reservations across the region, but maintained hunting rights in places deemed “unoccupied.”

At the same time, bison, which once numbered between 30 and 60 million in North America, were deliberately slaughtered en masse, part of the campaign to clear the land of Indigenous people: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” U.S. Army Col. Richard Dodge reportedly said in 1867. By the early 1900s, fewer than two dozen wild bison remained, deep in Yellowstone National Park.

Thanks to federal conservation efforts, bison rebounded in Yellowstone — and tribes began to reclaim their rights to harvest them. In the mid-2000s, the Nez Perce Tribe wrote to Montana’s governor, claiming their right to hunt bison on Forest Service land adjacent to the park. The state acknowledged the tribe’s sovereignty. “Today, after years without meaningful access to bison, the Nimiipuu are reconnecting with bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area, re-asserting our sacred relationship with the bison, and exercising our treaty-reserved right to hunt bison that was secured by our ancestors and promised by the United States,” the tribe said in an emailed statement. Over time, more tribes followed; last winter, eight tribal nations hunted bison outside Yellowstone, some from as far away as Washington and Oregon.

Wyett Wippert and Christen Falcon stand next to their bison hide outside their home in East Glacier, Montana, in April.

Tribal hunters entered a contentious landscape. For decades, the state of Montana, federal agencies and conservation groups have gone back and forth through lawsuits, legislation and protests over how many Yellowstone bison there should be, and where. Bison and elk in the region harbor the country’s last reservoir of a disease called brucellosis, which can cause cattle to abort and become infertile. While there have been no confirmed cases of wild bison spreading brucellosis to domestic cattle, the state still spends more than a million dollars every year to prevent its spread. If Montana loses its brucellosis-free status, it could forfeit another $10 million or more per year. Tribes, wildlife managers and park officials developed three methods to keep the park’s bison numbers down: hunting outside Yellowstone, transfer to tribes, and capture by park officials for slaughter.

“Today, after years without meaningful access to bison, the Nimiipuu are reconnecting with bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area.” 

By 2022, Yellowstone bison numbered about 6,000 — the highest since recovery began. During particularly harsh winters, when ice and deep snow block forage, the animals migrate north, searching for food. Last year, winter came on strong and early, and buffalo appeared in locations that they likely hadn’t grazed in a century.

A buffalo head harvested by Lauren Monroe, a Blackfeet tribal member, near Beattie Gulch in March. The meat from Monroe’s harvest goes directly to elders in the Blackfeet community.

That meant they had to pass through Beattie Gulch and other federal land, where hunters waited. Conservation groups have long criticized the park’s bison cull, but this year’s high harvest amplified that tension. Videos circulated online showed gut piles lining the road, blood streaming down the brown dirt as the offal thawed. Billboards popped up across the state, reading: “There is no hunt. It’s slaughter!” One local organization, the Gallatin Wildlife Association, wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, urging the federal government to “renegotiate how (tribal) treaty rights should be enforced in a modern society.”

Bonnie Lynn, who lives across the road from Beattie Gulch, is a longtime hunt opponent. Monitoring the harvest from cameras placed around her property, she said she’s seen injured animals fleeing into the park, dozens of hunters in a firing line — even people unintentionally shooting toward each other and the road. She’s also concerned about ecosystem health: Lead poisoning from bullets can devastate raptors and other scavenging birds. “To watch this on a daily basis is emotionally draining,” she said.

Lynn, like many others, blames this year’s high harvest on federal and state mismanagement. In May, Jaedin Medicine Elk, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and co-founder of the group Roam Free Nation, wrote an open letter to tribes that harvest Yellowstone bison. (The Northern Cheyenne Tribe hasn’t participated in the modern hunt.) “I don’t think the buffalo could go through another winter like this one,” he wrote. He said state and federal governments respect tribal treaty rights only when it directly benefits their agenda — in this case, serving Montana’s livestock industry. Bison need more room to roam, he wrote. When that happens, a respectful hunt can begin.


Blackfeet tribal members Wyett Wippert and Christen Falcon stretch a bison hide on a handmade wooden frame, the first step in tanning it, at their home in East Glacier, Montana.


AT THEIR HOME in East Glacier on the Blackfeet Reservation, more than five hours north of Beattie Gulch, Christen Falcon and her partner, Wyett Wippert, threaded nylon rope through the edges of a bison hide and pulled it taut, like tightening shoelaces. This was the couple’s first experience tanning a hide on their own. Chatting about the harvest with friends and neighbors, they tossed scraps of fat and meat to their dogs, Binks and Noi. “Gonna have all the neighbor dogs over here,” Wippert joked. “They’re comin’!”

Falcon said there’s a running joke about Yellowstone bison hunters in her community: They aren’t real hunters, people say. The hunt is roadside, and the animals are accustomed to tourists wielding cameras, not guns. Still, she said, it’s better than the alternative the animals face: Many of them likely would be slaughtered by the park anyway.

Falcon works for a nonprofit that focuses on Indigenous-led research. The bulk of her and Wippert’s harvest will go to a study she’s leading that will analyze what happens when tribal members consume a completely traditional diet. Animal parts with special meaning, like the tongue, will go to knowledge-holders. Ultimately, she sees the Yellowstone harvest as a blessing; it helps everyone who hunts and receives meat connect to land, culture and identity. “That’s what sovereignty is — taking care of yourself,” she said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

 “That’s what sovereignty is — taking care of yourself.”

Tribal hunters HCN interviewed said their meat goes to family, community members, even schools. An average bison yields, conservatively, 500 pounds of steak and burger, meaning the winter’s harvest of Yellowstone bison equates to over a half-million pounds of lean meat going straight to tribal communities. In places like the Blackfeet Reservation — where census data shows a poverty rate of 31.1%, roughly triple Montana’s average — that can have a real impact on food security and nutrition. Christina Flammond, a tribal member and the reservation’s sole meat processor, waives her 85-cents-per-pound processing fee for hunters who donate half their meat to local food pantries. “I never dreamed of processing this many bison,” Flammond said one April afternoon at her facility, where a handful of bison quarters hung, aging.

Christen Falcon holds the heart of a bison that she and her partner harvested on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park.

BISON IGNORE STATE, federal and tribal land boundaries, so managing them requires getting parties with sometimes diametrically opposed interests to agree. That’s not easy. As last winter began, the state, federal government and tribes hit an impasse. Montana wanted fewer bison while tribal nations argued that more of the ungulates should graze the hills and valleys of the region. In the end, the park suggested there’s no science-based reason to reduce the population and proposed that at most a quarter of it — 1,500 animals — be removed through hunting, slaughter and transfer to tribes.

Tribes, as sovereign nations, set their own hunting dates and regulations. Reporting hunt numbers is voluntary, and no cumulative goals exist. As bison flooded through Beattie Gulch, the total removed from the Yellowstone population — hundreds of animals were transferred to tribes or slaughtered — exceeded the park’s proposed limit. “I don’t want to see multiple years of substantial population reduction like we just had,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly.

“Everybody’s freaking out that there’s Indians eating from buffalo. That’s not a bad thing; that’s actually a good thing.”

James Holt, a Nez Perce tribal member and executive director of the advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign, said last winter’s hunt shows how Montana’s efforts to minimize the population have “led to every tribe for itself.” Lamenting the lack of a shared vision, he said, “It’s a tragedy of the commons that we’re seeing on the ground right now.” Still, there’s an opportunity for collaboration that centers both buffalo and tribes. He wants to see tribes work together to oversee a sustainable harvest, much the way Columbia River tribes cooperate on fish management.

“Everybody’s freaking out that there’s Indians eating from buffalo,” said Kekek Jason Stark, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and professor of law at the University of Montana. “That’s not a bad thing; that’s actually a good thing.”

In “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone,” published in the Wyoming Law Review last year, Stark and his co-authors offered what he called a “road map” to empower tribal voices in America’s first national park. Their vision encompasses more than bison: They suggested that Congress could return the park to tribal management, much as it did with the National Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation. Short of that, the park should empower tribes as partners with true decision-making authority. Since so many tribes with diverse interests have connections to the Yellowstone area, they suggested creating an intertribal commission. Once that work begins in Yellowstone, Stark said, “it’s going to catch like wildfire” on other federal lands.

Right now, only two of the eight tribes with bison-hunting rights are officially part of the conglomeration of agencies and tribal entities that manage the area’s bison, via an effort known as the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP. Four treaty tribes are also serving as partners while Yellowstone works on a new environmental impact statement to replace its nearly 25-year-old bison management plan. Last year, the park published the alternatives it’s considering, with population numbers ranging from 3,500 animals to as high as 8,000 or more. The state of Montana pushed back immediately, saying all the alternatives were too high and urging the park to withdraw those population targets.

Packaged bison meat in the cooler of C&C Meat Processing. Christina Flammond, a Blackfeet tribal member and the reservation’s sole meat processor, has processed more Yellowstone bison from the tribal treaty hunt this year than ever before.

In a June IBMP meeting — the first since last winter’s hunt — bison managers discussed how to move forward. Yellowstone Superintendent Sholly said there needs to be better landscape-level collaboration among all groups that hunt: “It can’t be a free-for-all.” Others, including the chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, agreed. But Ervin Carlson, a Blackfeet member and president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, said all the talk of the hunt distracts from another way of managing the population: Ramping up the park’s program to transfer living, breathing bison to tribal groups across the country.

The federal government is already in the throes of a massive effort to restore the iconic animal nationwide. A $25 million Interior Department initiative aims to partner with tribes and establish “wide-ranging herds on large landscapes,” to revitalize both ecosystems and cultures. The saga in Yellowstone shows just how difficult it can be to put those ideas into practice. In fact, Montana’s Legislature passed a resolution in April opposing federal bison reintroduction on a wildlife refuge more than 200 miles north of Yellowstone, one of several recent state-led attempts to create barriers to introducing wild bison in the state.

The future of bison management requires governmental policy decisions. But it also depends on the smaller-scale, on-the-ground actions of tribal members like Christen Falcon. “We’re Indigenizing this space,” Falcon said, warming up in a car in March, overlooking the wintry hills of Yellowstone. The dead animals, the publicly visible gore — she understands how unusual it all looks. “We’re showing this Western world that not everything is as it seems.”      

Nick Mott is an award-winning journalist and podcast producer who focuses mostly on climate, public land and the environment. He’s based in Livingston, Montana.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a writer and audio journalist who’s an editorial intern for the Indigenous Affairs desk at HCN. She’s Arapaho and Shoshone and writes about racism, rurality, and gender. 

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